Creating an Emergent Mystery

A dark room with a silhouette of a person behind an umbrella
Dec 15, 2022
game designgming

Crafting a good mystery game is challenge. It’s hard to find the right balance giving players narrative agency to drive the investigation, while also allowing for surprise “ah ha! It was the butler all along!” moments which are integral to a good mystery.

Prescribed Storyline

There is of course the classic mystery game strong prescribed storyline approach where the game master knows everything, dropping clues for players to (hopefully) find. This requires skill to subtly steer the story from start to climactic end, without massive exposition or railroading the players.

Keeping the players going generally in the right narrative direction can be hard. Clues can be missed due to failed perception checks or player characters with other agendas. Also players have a habit of running off following emergent red herrings based on random things that were not intended to be clues at all.

Collaborative Storytelling

Some games ignore these issues by using play to see what happens to it’s fullest. There is no set storyline. In Brindlewood Bay, each mystery involves “a cast of Suspects, and a list of Clues, but none of it is set in stone.” In Lovecraftesque, a gm-less game, players contribute clues to surprise each other.

This collaborative storytelling approach can be delightful, watching the story pull itself together as if by magic. It requires evocative story prompts, an encouraging facilitator, and a group of players willing to help drive to the overall story — not just their character’s actions.

While I love fully collaborative games, I also like running games with an intriguing story for players to discover. There is a joy of deducing the mystery yourselves as a player along with your character.

My Hybrid Solution to Running an Emergent Mystery

I’ve designed my own hybrid approach: I set up the mystery where I myself don’t know all the answers. During play, I use the player characters actions as brainstorming fodder to fill in the gaps. I strive to always stay one step ahead of the players, as we all race together to a satisfying climax and solution to the mystery.

This is a very improv approach which benefits with a little prep work. I plan out the mystery like a deck building game — adding the right thematic mix of elements which hopefully work together when faced with the chaos of actual play.

My prep looks like this:

  • Summary of the mystery and what is known thus far
  • Unanswered questions for myself about the mystery to be discovered through play
  • A list of secrets, clues, locations, and non-player characters
  • Potential complications and plot highlights, each tying together a location, secret, person, and a clue

I typically list everything as bullet points but you could also use a mind map style flow chart or even create your own deck of cards to draw from. You can kick prep like this out in 15 minutes or so. However, it also can also lend itself to more involved prep especially if you create pre-gen characters tangled up with the secrets and suspects. I had a lot of fun prepping my recent bank heist Lacuna game this way — using it as an excuse to watch some bank heist films for ideas.

With my prep, everything is in superposition, clues can have multiple meanings, and branching paths lead in different directions. I allow myself the flexibility to use any of material as is, remix it, or discard it in favor of some new idea inspired by the players.

Because the resulting story hinges so much on what the players bring to the table, I can run the same mystery with different players and it will result in a different ending every time.

You can see an example of this style of emergent mystery game prep in my Lacuna Dark game Back Job in Blue City now on!

Credit were credit is due

Much of this style is inspired by other low prep games like Apocalypse World and Blades in the Dark. The closest however is Agon. While I first outlined this style in my Lacuna Dark game back in 2017, seeing how Agon sets up islands has helped solidify my approach resulting in this blog post.

Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

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